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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 September 2018

Our man in London: meet the UAE ambassador working to ease travel for Emiratis

Sulaiman Al Mazroui talks diplomacy and red tape to supercar season tourists

UAE ambassador to the UK Sulaiman Al Mazroui gestures in his office in London. Stephen Lock for the National
UAE ambassador to the UK Sulaiman Al Mazroui gestures in his office in London. Stephen Lock for the National

Sulaiman Al Mazroui has already helped the UAE strike one key agreement in Europe - to allow its citizens to travel more freely around the continent.

Now, as ambassador at the UAE embassy in London, this experienced diplomat is looking to forge another such deal - this time with a country with which he has a strong personal association.

It was just over two years ago that the European Parliament voted to give Emiratis visa-free travel throughout the Schengen zone, something widely welcomed in the Emirates. At the time, Mr Al Mazroui was based in Brussels as head of the UAE Mission to the European Union, making him one of the pivotal officials who helped to smooth the path to the decision.

In mid-2016, this former academic and businessman moved on from Belgium, becoming the Ambassador of the United Arab Emirates to the Court of St James’s, to use his formal title. The hope is that, after success with the EU, Mr Al Mazroui can help to persuade British officials that cutting immigration red tape for Emirati visitors is a good thing.

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During an interview at the UAE Embassy in Knightsbridge, he said he was “surprised that the UK has not followed suit… after seeing the EU major breakthrough”, which applied to the 26 Schengen countries and eight non-Schengen nations. These nations were, he said, benefiting from the arrangement, describing visa-free travel for Emiratis as “a win-win situation”.

“Our citizens travel for tourism, education, [medical] treatment, investment, study. Why would a country not allow them to come and invest or study?” he said.

Currently, Emiratis must apply for an electronic visa waiver (EVW) to enter the UK, a requirement Mr Al Mazroui would like to see scrapped. He suggested the need for an EVW could be affecting the number of Emiratis who travel to the UK, where earlier in his career he spent several years carrying out postgraduate research.

“Obviously the UK is the most demanded destination for our citizens. If tomorrow we have citizens travelling visa-free, you will see an influx of tourists,” he said.

“The number, I have noticed, it's dwindling … Sometimes people worry about the visa. With the online visa now, you still have complications – a little mistake here and there, you get rejected.”

Embassy figures indicate that about 50,000 Emirati citizens visit the UK each year and there are around 2,000 UAE nationals studying in the country.

The EVW, which is also available to Kuwaiti, Omani and Qatari citizens, costs £15 (Dh71.6) and must be applied for at least 48 hours before travel. Recipients can spend up to six months in the UK for business, tourism, education or medical treatment, but only a single entry is permitted, which Mr Al Mazroui said could prove inconvenient for some travellers keen to also go to mainland Europe.

“If you want to go [from the UK] to France for the day, you cannot – it's valid one go only,” he said, adding that an interim aim of the UAE authorities was for the EVW to become a multiple-entry permit. Its complete scrapping is however the ultimate ambition, being “something we aspire to”.

“The visa is one of the most important aspects of any relations. If you have that done, the rest will follow – investment, tourism,” he said.

Mr Al Mazroui said he hoped the British authorities would “understand the need” for the EVW requirement to end.

“We don't have people to export or who come and stay over. [The UK is] benefiting from them here compared to the large number of people coming from other countries.” he said.

A spokesperson for the UK Home Office, which is responsible for immigration issues, said that the EVW was "a quick and simple alternative to a visa application".

"The system is more convenient for passengers to use and allows eligible passport holders to travel to the UK without having to acquire a visa, provided they have submitted the required information at least 48 hours in advance," the spokesperson said.

"The UK keeps its visa regime under regular review. Visas are an effective tool in reducing illegal immigration, tackling organised crime and protecting national security."

Mr Al Mazroui’s stint in Brussels lasted five years and as well as being Head of the UAE Mission to the European Union, he was the UAE ambassador to Belgium and the UAE ambassador to Luxembourg. For the first two years relations with Nato also came under his responsibility.

“So it was a handful. We went through a lot of experiences, particularly in regards to the Schengen waiver for UAE citizens. That was our major project in the EU,” he said.

“The UAE is the second-largest Arab economy and in almost all of the European countries the UAE is the number one trading partner. With the EU it's more than 50 billion [euros of] trade.

“Five years on, I was asked to move on, to the west … and probably because I succeeded with the visa-waiver with Schengen for the UAE, I will be able to do something here. We're trying.”

Away from diplomacy, looking after the interests of the many Emiratis who are already here is a priority.

Mr Al Mazroui is keen to ensure that the regular summer press reports about speeding supercar drivers in central London, a phenomenon often linked to visitors from the Gulf, do not unfairly affect the reputation of Emiratis in the UK.

“I wouldn't say a lot of UAE nationals are doing that – maybe one or two irresponsible kids are behaving in such a manner,” he said.

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“We're a lot less than the rest of the Gulf countries. We advise our citizens to adhere to responsible behaviour when they travel abroad.

“They feel comfortable here; it's welcoming. Sometimes you get the odd misbehaviour; we tend to take action when we know about it. The authorities back home have always been quite decisive when it comes to bad behaviour abroad. It tarnishes the image when it happens.”

Although now a seasoned ambassador, Mr Al Mazroui's professional experience extends well beyond diplomatic compounds and government offices.

He holds bachelor's and master's degrees from the American University in Washington DC and later moved to Cambridge in the United Kingdom and completed several years of postgraduate research. His life in academia continued at the UAE University in Al Ain, where between 1980 and 1988 he was a member of the Faculty of Political Science and Administration.

He has held many senior roles in the business world, including as general manager for group corporate communications at Emirates NBD. He was also chairman of the Dubai Transport Corporation and of the Bankers' Business Group in Dubai and has been on the board of numerous other major firms, including Dubai World and Emirates Islamic Bank. He sees private sector experience as enormously beneficial.

“It's very funny, because finishing international relations, then going into banking, it's not by plan. It's by some desire of God, higher designs … but I learnt so much from the private sector,” he said.

“My children, when they finish university, I would recommend they go into banking, even if it's for a short period of time.

“They will have that environment to learn from. They will have to be on time. And there are fantastic training programmes from the private sector that teach you so much.”

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